Staff Picks from the ExCollege

We love going into an independent bookstore and finding a shelf of “Staff Picks” that not only recommend great books, but also provide a glimpse into the interests and personality of the staff who recommend them.

In that vein, here are some personal favorites by ExCollege staff if they had time to sign up for a Fall course.  Check out all our course offerings here.  Registration opens June 6.

137122847247677.fJksADsW4rW8HTkpzGqI_height640ExCollege Staff Member: Director Howard Woolf

Course he’d like to take: Accused: The Gap Between Law and Justice (EXP-0070)

“I’m fascinated by the personal story of instructor Sonja Spears (J ’86), who was an elected judge for twelve years in New Orleans. Despite her unblemished legal career, she endured two years of intense scrutiny as the target of a federal criminal investigation. She was ultimately cleared without any charges being filed, and the office in charge of her prosecution has faced questions of prosecutorial misconduct

I love the complexity of New Orleans, and Sonja’s experience there gives the course a unique perspective on the wrongfully accused and what ‘justice’ means in this country today.”

ExCollege Staff Member: Madeleine Delpha

Course she’d like to take: All courses on reproduction and art

“As the parent of a four-year-old, I’m already thinking about age-appropriate Sex Ed: From Pre-K to Grade 12 (EXP-0041). I’m interested in the relationship between sexuality and gender from different cultural perspectives, a topic also explored in Reproductive Health: Gender, Race, and Inequality (EXP-0044).

At the same time, thumbnail-3the artist in me would love to take Guerilla Performance Art & Politics (EXP-0018) taught by Milan Kohout, who has been on the front lines of political art activism.

Finally, the art historian in me would not miss Art and the Nazis (EXP-0004), and its analysis of why modern art was so threatening to the Nazis, and why they were drawn to certain styles of centuries-old art.”

ExCollege Staff Member: Joseph Abrantes

136806564309631.0q8JyYEAKiXfsFCejBD4_height640Course he’d like to take:    Love and Blood: Perspectives on Adoption (EXP-0045)

“The topic is something I can relate to personally.  While each person discussed in the course has a different experience – whether they were orphaned, fostered, and/or adopted – they share a common experience of being part of a family that was disrupted.

My runner-up choice would be EXP-0054 The Aesthetics of Commercial Culture, because how often do you get to study Queen Bey?”


ExCollege Staff Member: Amy Goldstein

Women & Water

Course she’d like to take:   Women and Water: Fighting for Environmental Justice (EXP-0048)

“I have a longstanding interest in environmental justice (see my previous blog post), and I’m always fascinated by the forgotten roles that women have played in history and science.  This course seems to be a brilliant combination of environmental studies concepts viewed through the lens of the role women have played in conservation and environmental movements, with a focus on water.”

Need more suggestions? Just ask us!

President Kim Kardashian. Elvis alive. What are the odds?

When not photographing illicit fuel refineries controlled by Nigerian warlords, or teaching for the Program of Narrative and Documentary Practice at Tufts, Samuel James (A’10) is apparently bringing an old and classic feel back to sports.

Last week, we heard from Gary Knight – a renowned photojournalist and instructor for the Advanced Narrative and Documentary Program – that Sam was spending time in England photographing professional soccer with a speed graphic (pictured below).

Large Format - This is Getting Serious!When the young photographer showed up to stadium grounds with the old clunky camera, he was initially welcomed with laughter from sports photographers using state-of-the-art DSLRs. In no time, however, Sam won their hearts and praise, and he produced some truly amazing photos for the May issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Now, while Sam’s story is fascinating, I was frankly more interested in what he had the opportunity to witness in England… And bear with me, because I’m about to attempt a sports comparison that may well be incomparable to anything in American Sports.

Across the pond, the Barclays Premier League hosts the top professional English football clubs in the country. It is composed of twenty teams and is the most-watched football league in the world.

©SamuelJames2015(2)For those of you that don’t know, soccer around the world functions on a promotion and relegation system that is vastly different from anything in American sports – even Major League Soccer. That’s because, the three lowest placed teams in the top league are relegated (demoted) to second-division soccer to make room for the three best teams in a lower division.

That’s sort-of like the Brooklyn Nets, the Lakers and the 76ers having to play in the D-League next year to make room for the three best development teams…

Here’s where it gets interesting and where – as Sam puts it – millions of fans across the world… have been left to marvel at one of the most baffling and unprecedented stories in the annals of sports. 

Leicester City, a no-name team that won promotion to the Premier League in 2014 – just to barely fight off relegation in 2015 – is now on the brink of winning the 2016 Premier League title.

I lost you? All I get was a shrug?

Well, picture the Cleveland Browns – who have NEVER competed in a Super Bowl and finished next-to-last in the 2015 NFL season. Now picture them winning the Super Bowl next February…

This still doesn’t do Leicester justice. The current odds that the Browns win the next Super Bowl: 200-1. The odds at the beginning of the Premier league season that Leicester City win the title: 5,000-1.

Bookies had better odds for:

  • The Loch Ness monster being discovered (500-1).
  • Kim Kardashian being the US president (2,000-1).
  • Elvis being alive (2,000-1)

I could continue to bore you with all the reasons why this is so remarkable, but instead I’ll direct the truly interested to this BBC article “explaining the full Leicester City story to Americans.” In the meantime, I just want to tell Sam how very jealous I am that he was potentially witnessing sports history!

Welcome to the ExCollege Board!

We are happy to announce two new students will be filling open seats on our Board next year!

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the inner workings of the ExCollege, five undergraduates, five Tufts professors and one graduate student sit on our Board. Together, they select our courses, collaborate on events, and represent the larger Tufts community.

DSC_2275Kate Sienko is a rising senior currently studying abroad in Barcelona. In her junior fall, she taught a Perspectives course for first-year students, called The Medium is the Message: The Evolution of Advertising in America.

Kate is also on the Marketing and Publicity Team for TEDxTufts, in the Chi Omega Fraternity, a member of Special Friends, and a former student of the Program for Narrative and Documentary Practice through the Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts.  Check out the blog she’s writing from Spain.

When asked why she wants to join the ExCollege Board, Kate explained that it is a “hidden gem.”

The ExCollege offers unparalleled opportunities to explore, discover, experience, and above all, try…

It allows me to explore my creative curiosity and pursue my real-world interests that are not offered in the traditional classroom setting, such as advertising, journalism, photojournalism, marketing, public relations, and publication. I believe that the ExCollege complements my traditional studies and thus, every semester, I pair one ExCollege class with my four traditional classes…

– Kate Sienko, Class of 2017

IMG_1625Hanzhi Zhang is a rising sophomore who, in her first two semesters, took two ExCollege courses – Communicating for the Government (Fall 2015) and The Crisis Game (Spring 2016). Hanzhi is originally from Beijing, China and was actually drawn to Tufts because of the Experimental College – even writing about it in her “Why Tufts?” application prompt.

She is a tutor through the Leonard Carmichael Society, a volunteer translator for Home of Hope (Xiwangzhijia), and she participates in phone banking for for Bernie Sanders. Hanzhi is also a fanatic for maps and cartography!


The ExCollege is an irreplaceable part of my Tufts experience and I want to be on the board to help make it even better for the Tufts community. As a high school student, especially an international one, I never thought such multidisciplinary and hands-on courses were possible at an undergraduate level…I don’t think enough Tufts students are taking advantage of what the ExCollege has to offer. I feel strongly about it because I know how rare such opportunities are for an undergraduate student, not only in the US, but also around the world.

 – Hanzhi Zhang, Class of 2019


I believe the man who said, “All politics is local,” grew up just down the road from my house, and my recent campaign for Arlington Town Meeting Member definitely served as a crash course in politics. The process forced me to stretch way out of my comfort zone and acknowledge some universal truths. Here’s a list of things to keep in mind when running for office, which also apply to life in general.

  1. Work your strengths

egg hunt online graphic copy-2I love planning events, particularly holidays. I inherited this quality from my mother, who elevates menu planning to an art form. So when I saw a call on social media for someone to take over organizing the neighborhood egg hunt, I knew I was just the woman for the job. Knocking on doors to ask for votes felt intimidating, but planning an egg hunt as a way to meet more of my neighbors sounded fun! The egg hunt had a record turnout and helped me get to know some folks in my precinct while showing off my organizing abilities.

  1. Be proud of your story and experiencesback of postcard

I made a postcard to tell my neighbors a little about myself. I debated whether or not to describe myself a “pedestrian and bicyclist,” because it’s a car’s world and a lot of people really seem to hate cyclists. I decided to be honest about my values and it paid off. Someone in my network shared the postcard with acquaintances who were impressed that I identified myself as a bicyclist. What I feared was a liability may have ended up winning me some votes!

  1. Acknowledge and appreciate your support systems

150 feet from the polls with the best husband ever!

It’s no secret that I have some wonderful colleagues here at the ExCollege, and they were a big source of encouragement, including Amy convincing me to run in the first place! Howard and Joe were extremely patient with our frequent Arlington-centered discussions and each of my co-workers gave me valuable advice.

I have to give a big shout out to my husband, who though initially skeptical about my run, delivered postcards to over 130 households in our precinct and stood outside the polling place with me on the cold, rainy morning of the election, while Auntie Lylee babysat. It takes a village!

I was also helped tremendously by some of the other folks running for Town Meeting, who shared my name with their networks and commiserated with me over some of the more stressful aspects of politicking.

  1. Hard work pays off

Town Meeting elections are small. Only 204 people voted in my precinct this election. In Precinct #4order to get elected, I didn’t even have to get the most votes. There were four seats open, so I just had to be one of the top four. Even so, I took it seriously and put in many hours of work. I studied up on the issues, attended meetings, networked, printed and distributed postcards, and stood 150 feet outside the polls on the morning of the election. And I got 61% of the vote, coming in second for my precinct!

  1. Not everyone is going to like you

Local politics can be intense! Running for anything as a resident of merely five years in a New England town takes guts. Several younger residents who are new to Arlington politics were elected this year, and not everyone is happy about it. In fact, some have been downright hostile. But I’m proud of the work I did to get elected and optimistic that I can work for incremental, positive changes in my community. Bring on the meetings!

It’s Going to be a Superhero Landing

As soon as test footage for Deadpool leaked in August 2014, one thought raced through my mind – it is about dang time! The witty, raunchy “merc-with-a-mouth” was always one of my favorite superheroes, and luckily, fans online backed the film enough to push it to the big screen.

I know I’m late to the Deadpool conversation. It’s now clear that Wade Wilson is our newest record-breaking box office hero, earning over $130 million in it’s opening weekend and grossing more than than $700 million worldwide to date. In fact, it is the seventh-biggest comic movie debut of all time, behind two Avengers films, two Dark Knight installments, Iron Man 3 and Spider Man 3.  Concerning non-sequels, it’s right between The Hunger Games and Man of Steel as the second-biggest non-sequel debut of all time (third if you want to count The Avengers). – Forbes

I was always a huge superhero fan – although most of my knowledge is secondhand from older cousins who were often “too cool” to let me look at their comics myself. And I know there are plenty of people agonizing about the thought of another superhero blockbuster, but I say keep ‘em coming!

Deadpool only reenergized my love for comic book movies and kick-started what should be an interesting spring and summer. Just take a look at the next four releases:

March 25 (MIDNIGHT TONIGHT!) – Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice

May 6 – Captain America: Civil War

May 27 – X-Men: Apocalypse

Aug 5 – Suicide Squad

Although comic-lovers are divided when it comes to… well, just about everything, I am completely gung ho for each of these films. You might be upset that Ben Affleck is playing Batman, or you might hate Spiderman’s new look in Civil War. But, we are really just getting started! Have you seen the potential four-year lineup?

Call me a naïve fan, or maybe blame my lack of “nit-picky-ness” on the fact that I never had own comics, but I’m really just looking for great action movies with the right amount wit and comic relief.

I will say, however, that I am particularly interested in seeing how Suicide Squad turns out – a film about supervillains-made-antiheroes recruited by the government for dangerous black-ops missions. Deadpool was an enormous success with an R-rating, yet most films moving forward (even those with darker plots) are still PG-13.

I just wonder how parents will feel walking down a toy isle with boxes labeled “Suicide Squad.” And the chilling effect from Jared Leto’s Joker at the end of the movie’s trailer makes him one of DC Comics most anticipated characters!

On Costumes and Creativity

One of the most valuable aspects of studying art in college was the confidence it gave me in my ability to make things. Is there a creative problem to solve? A vision to be realized? I can make it happen, or at least enjoy trying. I recognize this courage in Tufts students, especially around Halloween. From the Film and Media Studies Kickoff Celebration, to TUTV’s Horror Fest, to the Art Gallery’s Halloween Party, the campus is brimming with imagination and ingenuity. For creative types, it’s the most wonderful time of the year!

When my mother was in college, she spent her summers making costumes for an opera company in Chautauqua, New York. She loves to recount stories of her summers in Chautauqua. Example: A friend of mine announces on Facebook that she has decided on purple chiffon bridesmaids’ dresses. My mother replies, “There is nothing more heavenly than a violet chiffon! That’s what I was wearing when Pavarotti invited me to his hotel room!”

Halloween 1986

Rainbow Brite, 1986

It’s not surprising, then, that I had some seriously fabulous Halloween costumes as a kid. A store-bought costume would have been unthinkable, and preparations started weeks in advance. Together we would browse pattern books and select fabrics and embellishments. It was the 1980s and fabric stores were packed to the gills with sequins, beads, and tassels. What a time to be alive!

halloween 2009

Rockford Peach, 2009

When I was nine, A League of Their Own was released, and I quickly became obsessed. I listened to the soundtrack cassette as I wrote angst-filled, feminist essays in my diary. I read a novel based on the screenplay many times that summer, and my mother arranged for me to meet a local woman who had actually played for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. She must have been in her 70s and was extremely gracious about having a third grader ask for her autograph. That year for Halloween, my mother made me a Rockford Peaches uniform. It was her masterpiece. She pulled out her 1960s-era Catholic school gym uniform and used it to make a pattern. She drew a Rockford Peaches logo on Aida cloth, hand-embroidered it, and sewed it to the front. It was incredible. Luckily, I was an extremely tall and chubby 9-year-old, so I was able to wear this costume on Halloween again when I was 26. I was the toast of Greenwich Village.

halloween 2013

Amelia Earhart, 2013

halloween 2014

Green Dinosaur, 2014

I may not be as good a seamstress as my mom, but I do make my daughter’s Halloween costumes. We plan them weeks in advance, using the internet to do research and source materials. I take a more sculptural approach, using glue, felt, cardboard, and paint where my mom used fabric, patterns, and embroidery, but the spirit is the same. The sky is the limit for my daughter’s Halloween costumes; she can be anything she wants.

The Trouble with Jellyfish

A friend offered to babysit and my husband, Scott, and I giddily set off for a date. It felt indulgent and luxurious. We were leaving the house at dusk! Scott had planned our evening, only telling me that before dinner, we were going to see “an art exhibit about jellyfish.” I was skeptical, but he seemed pretty excited about it. We took the T to Kendall and walked a short distance to Le Laboratoire, which presents innovative ideas and interdisciplinary collaborations. It’s like the ExCollege in gallery form. The front window read, “The Trouble with Jellyfish; Mark Dion with Lisa-Ann Gershwin.”

Trouble with Jellyfish

“Mark Dion!” I exclaimed, “I coordinated his ArtisTalk at Harvard! And we saw his exhibition at Mass MoCA.” Scott looked at me blankly; he wanted to see the exhibition because he had recently read Gershwin’s book, Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean. It felt like the perfect intersection of our interests, and the interactive exhibition was informative and charming. Dion created a Victorian parlor with jellyfish prints and fossils on loan from Harvard, providing background on the cultural history of jellies. There’s a tank of moon jellyfish from the New England Aquarium, which is always the most dazzling part of an aquarium visit. A video lecture from Gershwin explains the causes and consequences of jellyfish overpopulation. A pair of funny short films and installations, created by Harvard students in collaboration with the artist and marine biologist, propose solutions to deal with the abundance of jellyfish. We laughed, we learned, it was the perfect date.

The exhibition runs through January 2, so check it out!

Spaceship Earth

photo courtesy of NASA

You may have wondered, who is that woman sitting in Howard’s old office scrolling through photos on NASA’s website?  I’m Amy Goldstein, the new Assistant Director at the ExCollege, and I’m thrilled to be here.  When I think about the Experimental College, I can’t help thinking about Spaceship Earth. That was the class I took in college that was the closest thing to an alternative, ExCollege-type course where I went to school.  Spaceship Earth was interdisciplinary, team-taught, and didn’t have a textbook – radical for the time!  We covered everything from global warming (referred to back then as the “greenhouse effect”), to sustainable agriculture, to the global population explosion.  Of course, Tufts now has an array of classes and programs on environmental topics and sustainability that I couldn’t have imagined when I was an undergrad.

The professor who created Spaceship Earth was a bit odd and truly memorable, and I’m indebted to him for encouraging my interest in social justice.  Even though I ended up an English major who went on to law school, it was Spaceship Earth that set me on a course of questioning the status quo and using tools like law to address inequality.

It’s amazing how one class and one teacher can have such a life-long effect.  That’s what we specialize in at the ExCollege.  I hope you’ll ride Spaceship Earth on over to 95 Talbot and say hello!

Mom, Apple Pie, and . . . Documentary?

As the new director of the Experimental College at Tufts, it’s my privilege to lead off with the first post on X, our updated blog. To this end, I want to share a few observations on something I’ve been thinking about a great deal lately: the surprising state of documentary these days.

Here at the ExCollege, for example, we’re offering a well-received course on doc theory taught by Natalie Minik, who’s a product of the Duke Center for Documentary Studies. In addition, on Sunday, October 11th, we’re co-sponsoring the Tufts premier of Codename: Pirat, a film by Erik Asch about his father, Bob, the long time director of the Tufts-in-Tubingen program, who may or may not have been a spy!

And my colleague here in the Film and Media Studies program, Khary Jones, is part of the creative team that just brought He Named Me Malala to the screen. I mention “screen” quite intentionally, because the film is currently showing at suburban multiplexes around Boston!

On a personal note, I’m in the very early stages of launching a long-form project about a breakaway Jewish congregation in Chicago, called Mishkan, that’s attempting to meld progressive politics with folk culture and ecstatic practice.

It seems to me that all of this points toward a sea change in American culture. Over the last twenty years, people have started paying attention to films other than features. Yes, it built slowly. And yes, it would be fair to say that interest has waxed and waned. And yes, it might also be fair to say that – call it what you will – this renaissance, this golden age of documentary, owes much to a bookend set of necessary evils: “reality” TV and Michael Moore. (Reality TV and Moore both warrant further discussion, but I won’t take the time now to do so.)

Equally as important, I believe the ascendance of documentary has been driven, in a fundamental manner, by the digitization of media, a phenomenon that cuts two ways.

First of all, thanks to digital cameras and editing software, shooting a documentary at a quality level that audiences will read as “professional” is now within the reach of anyone who can cobble together a few thousand dollars. Once upon a not so distant time, that figure would have been a few hundred thousand, at least.

Secondly, cable and the Internet have exponentially expanded the need for “content” (horrible word, great concept). And “content providers” – HBO, IFC, iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon Prime, and so on – have rushed into the breach, providing the means to promote and distribute small-budget films at a magnitude unimaginable in the 80s and 90s.

Obviously, there’s much to work through. But for me, today, I’m left with these thoughts. We have a solid enrollment in the course. Erik’s film is garnering praise around the world. There’s funding and an audience within reach for my project. And you can buy tickets for Malala at Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, and Showcase Cinemas in Worcester and Woburn, five or six shows daily, every day of the week.

Selecting ExCollege Courses

Over 100 proposals were submitted by candidates eager for the opportunity to teach in the fall semester. In just a few short days, the ExCollege Board will be meeting to determine which 22 of those courses will be offered to Tufts students. But how exactly do we go from the 100+ proposals down to 22?

The Life of a Proposal